Iowa officials investigate fish kill following manure spill in Wolf Creek


Tyler Chalfant | November 5th, 2019

A fish kill was found in Wolf Creek in Tama County last week, after a manure applicator for Mayo Farm Inc. reported that about 2,600 gallons of manure leaked had from a drag hose. The applicator attempted to stop the flow, but estimates that up to 500 gallons reached the creek. Environmental officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are investigating the spill.

Fresh manure contains ammonia, which kills fish at high quantities. Manure is used as a fertilizer because of the high levels of nutrients ‒ notably nitrogen and phosphorus ‒ that it contains. However, when too much of these nutrients enter an ecosystem, it can throw the system out of balance. Algae tends to bloom in nitrogen-rich environments, and certain types known as cyanobacteria can be toxic for aquatic life. 

Even when it isn’t toxic, overgrowth of algae can also kill fish through oxygen depletion, known as hypoxia. Nitrogen runoff from Iowa agriculture contributes not only to local hypoxia, but also to the largest ever “dead zone,” at the basin of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. The voluntary practices recommended in the state’s 2014 Nutrient Reduction Strategy include reducing the use of fertilizers in order to reduce hypoxia. 

Complications with selective breeding in dogs


 

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(rudyeleazardubon/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| November 4, 2019

 

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found evidence that artificial dog breeding has affected the animal’s brain.

Artificial dog breeding has been around for centuries, even notably performed by George Washington and the crossbreed of the American foxhound. Selective breeding is done to achieve desired behavioral and physical characteristics. A study at Harvard University set out to find out if the practice has affected their physical characteristics in ways we can’t see. 

Dr. Erin Hecht, the leader of the study, focused on brain structure unrelated to body size or head shape. 62 male and female dogs of 33 different dog species were given MIRS. After the areas of the brains were analyzed, the team created six separate brain network models, each related to a different behavior specialization like hunting, guarding, companionship, etc. An analyzation of the data revealed that brain anatomy has significant variation among the different dog species, likely related to human-applied selection for behavior. 

This study is one of the first related to the complications of selective breeding and Dr. Hecht, and their team, look forward to continuing their research. 

University of Iowa administrators discuss sustainability goals, ending coal in power plant


University of Iowa power plant, by Dave Smith, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 31st, 2019

University of Iowa administrators met Thursday to discuss the school’s sustainability goals. This meeting followed months of protests from Iowa City students and community members, including a visit from international climate activist Greta Thunberg. The strikers have called on the university to create a Town-Gown Climate Accord with the city and to end coal burning at the university’s power plant. 

None of the strikers were invited to participate in Thursday’s meeting. Stratis Giannakouros, the director of the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment, said that this sort of meeting addressing the university’s climate goals is fairly routine. 

The university has committed to ending the burning of coal by 2025, although the strikers are demanding that this change happen much sooner than that, and that the power plant transitions to 100% renewable sources by 2030. 

The university plans on entering into a public-private partnership, or P3, to operate its utilities system. University President Bruce Harreld has stated that the partnership will not alter the plan to stop burning coal by 2025, although some bidders are interested in stopping even earlier, by 2023. 

Senior Vice President of UI Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz told the Daily Iowan that he thought that deadline was realistic, and that many of the finalists for the P3 were drawn to the university specifically because of the desire to get rid of coal. “All of them have said that the first thing they want to do is explore our plans for 2025, and how we can expedite that,” Lehnertz said.

Does October snow contradict climate change theory? Absolutely not.


Julia Poska | October 30, 2019

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Map from Iowa Environmental Mesonet (accessed through Des Moines Register).

Iowans across much of the state awoke Tuesday morning to find a blanket of fresh snow atop vibrant orange and yellow autumn leaves, many still attached to the trees. Parts of east and east central Iowa saw as much as three to four inches, according to the Des Moines Register. 

The National Weather Service  puts the average date of first one-inch snowfall in eastern Iowa in early December.  The unseasonable flurry might have some Iowans questioning how serious Midwestern climate change could really be.

But climate (average temperature and precipitation over several decades) is not the same as weather (daily atmospheric conditions). Years of abnormally high snowfall or abnormally cold weather could have an impact on the averages that create our “climate,” but snow, frost and even “polar vortex” events on their own are products of normal weather variation throughout the year.

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Records show that overall, average annual temperatures in Iowa and most of the world are increasing, despite weather variation. This pushes local 30-year climate averages (shown below for Iowa City) up by small increments over time.

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From U.S. Climate Data

 

Iowans can still expect snow and cold in coming decades, though the overall frequency and intensity of such events may decline over time. Somewhat milder winters will be followed by much hotter, dryer summers, with an increased number of intense rainstorms added to the mix.

Destructive wildfires erupt across California


AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mel Melcon

Tyler Chalfant | October 29th, 2019

Multiple massive wildfires have raged across California this week, stretching the state’s firefighting resources. Dangerous and destructive fires are becoming increasingly common in the state. 2018 was the worst year for fires on record, and a state-commissioned report found that, under current emission trends, the average burn area will increase by 77% by the end of the century.

Low humidity and heavy winds have created ideal conditions for wildfires to spread. A wildfire twice the size of San Francisco has already destroyed at least 60 homes. Fires in Northern California also caused a blackout on Sunday, cutting off electricity to more than 2.5 million people. On Monday morning, fires broke out near Los Angeles as well. These emergency conditions have exhausted much of the state’s firefighting budget, leaving fewer funds available for preventive measures, such as thinning forests and protecting infrastructure and water supplies.
Wildfires have combined with drought and insect infestations to kill millions of California trees in recent years. These fires also contribute to climate change, as a single fire can release as much carbon as 2.5 million cars would emit in a year. The human toll is growing as well. 93 lives were lost due to California wildfires last year alone. Even after fires are extinguished, it can take communities months or years to recover. The length of “wildfire season” grows longer as well. Today, there are 78 more “fire days” than there were 50 years ago.

Clorox sets new environmental goals


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Clorox (Mike Mozart/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| October 28, 2019

 

Currently, 92% of Clorox’s packaging is recyclable but new goals set by the company will aim to make 100% of their packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025 and reduce half of the virgin plastic and paper-based fiber by 2030. In the United States and Canada, they aim for their buildings to be 100% renewable electricity. To increase transparency, the company has also agreed to publish a list of “restricted substances.”

In 2018, only 4% of corporate sustainability goals were met. To ensure success, Clorox is attaching executive pay to their sustainability targets, meaning executives who reach these goals will receive bonuses. Benno Dorer, chairman and CEO at Clorox said, “As a mission-driven company, it’s important for us to continue integrating ESG [environmental, social and governance] into our overall business strategy.”

Transportation pollution is one of the leading air pollutants


By Julia Shanahan | October 25th, 2019

According to an Oct. 10 report from the New York Times, greenhouse emissions in the Des Moines metro area have increased 85 percent since 1990 and 20 percent per capita.

In 2017, transportation was the largest source of greenhouse emissions, topping industry and agriculture. Passenger vehicles made up a large majority of the emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased in almost every metropolitan area nationwide, with New York a leading city, the report says.

Iowa is often scrutinized for its role in contributing to climate change due to Iowa farmers’ farming practices. Jerry Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, told the Des Moines Register that along with Des Moines’ growing population, greenhouse gas emissions can also be attributed to surrounding suburbs expanding into what was once rural farmland, therefore increasing Iowa’s carbon footprint. He also called for regulations on large freight vehicles, saying there should be improved average fleet-mile efficiency.

In 2018, the total number of licensed drivers in Polk County was 347,472, an approximate 100,000-person increase since 2008. In Iowa, 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation pollution, with agriculture accounting for a majority of Iowa air pollution with 30 percent.